Forbassplayersonly.com Interview with Jon Liebman
Exclusive Interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
November 30, 2009
Plumeri is a bass player, composer and conductor, extremely well versed
in both classical and jazz. Lauded by the Washington Post, Fanfare
Magzaine, Jazz Improv Magazine and allaboutjazz.com, Terry’s work seems
to have no boundaries. He has recorded the Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4, 5
and 6 as conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic and has scored for dozens
of films, including One False Move, Love Takes Wing and Stephen King’s Sometimes They Come Back.
Plumeri has also performed with jazz greats Cannonball Adderley, Herbie
Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Quincy Jones and many others. Among the places
where Terry has lectured on music include the Smithsonian Institute,
Georgetown University, the Maryland Art Institute and the University of
Southern California. As a bass player, he is known for the stellar
arco technique he applies to his own unique style of jazz.
What kind of musical upbringing did you have? What sequence of events
led to your becoming a bass player, conductor and composer?
I was raised by my maternal Scot-Irish/Apache grandmother, Elva Dane
Oakley, who listened to the Grand Ole Opry and attended church
regularly. The first music I remember was her singing “Red River
Valley” and other folk songs in a traditional Scot-Irish unaccompanied
fashion, or country music from musicians like Porter Wagner, Ernest
Tubb and Tennessee Ernie Ford, or hymnals which I heard in the church
Another one of my most memorable musical
events as a child was the first time I heard a symphony orchestra,
during my first year in school. I heard the “March Slav Overture” by
Tchaikovsky and can still remember how attracted I was to the dark
drama of the main theme and how amazing the sound of the orchestra was
to my ears.
Then, when I was 5, I was with a family member
at the neighborhood tavern and I recall being mesmerized by the
honky-tonk piano player there. I still remember the lively feeling in
the room when he played, as well as the hypnotic motion of his fingers
and the friendly and encouraging way he spoke to me, saying he thought
my hands were very good for playing the piano.
Elva Dane’s unaccompanied voice and the religious hymns, these last two
experiences were probably the most compelling as a child and very
possibly provided my greatest influences, given my long sustained
involvement in classical and jazz music.
When I was 10, I
had the opportunity to play the cornet in the school band. Playing
cornet was very natural to me, and very quickly, in a matter of a few
short weeks, I surprised myself at what I could produce on the horn. It
felt so natural, it seemed as though I had played the instrument
previously. When I got a little older, the remembrance of that
experience made me seriously consider the possibility of past lives.
Six months after beginning the cornet, I fell while running up some
cement stairs and took a stair in the mouth, resulting in the breaking
of my front teeth about half way off. There was no money for the
dentist to repair my teeth, so from that point on, playing the trumpet
was always physically uncomfortable. This led to my changing to the
lower brass instruments such as baritone horn and eventually the tuba.
As the first tuba in my high school concert band, I was given first
choice at playing a new string bass the school had just purchased.
that moment, life became very different. I immediately felt as though I
had found myself, especially when I bowed the bass. Since my first time
drawing the bow across the string, I was intrigued by the unusualness
of the sound I made. As strange as it sounded to my ears, I could not
get enough of it. Endless hours of bowing the bass always left me
wanting more. I very quickly realized that the journey was infinite,
which was very appealing to me.
Another appealing element
about the acoustic bass was its ability to express itself in two
completely different instrumental colors: a percussive drumming flavor,
pizzicato, and a lyrical sustaining voice, arco. The combination of the
two made the instrument a very interesting friend. At a moment’s
notice, I could completely reverse the color of the instrument’s
expressive voice. As a bass player, it was as if I could be a drummer
one moment and a singing voice, the next. This duality of the bass is
very possibly the director of my life path as a musician. The pizzicato
drumming became the door to jazz and the singing sustain of the bow
became the door to the symphony orchestra.
Not long after
high school, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to the Manhattan
School of Music, which led me to Robert Brennand, my teacher, who also
was Ron Carter’s teacher. At the time, Brennand was the principal
bassist of the New York Philharmonic and one of two bass instructors
for the Manhattan School. He was not only the greatest bowing bassist I
have heard in my lifetime, he was also one of the most encouraging
individuals I have ever encountered. Not only was he a master of the
technical knowledge of bass playing, with absolute clarity at conveying
it to the student, but he was also the greatest friend in his ability
to always send you home believing in yourself and ready to tackle the
seemingly insurmountable problems of expressing yourself on the double
bass. There is no doubt that he was truly one of the great gifts of my
entire life in his ability to set me free on the road which I love so
deeply. For this, I am eternally grateful to the Supreme Being for such
an ultimate gift.
FBPO: Your education and
professional training read like that of someone well steeped in
classical music. You’ve conducted Tchaikovsky symphonies, scored
dozens of films and lectured at major universities throughout the
country. In addition, though, you’ve performed with Cannonball
Adderley, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Woody Herman and many other
jazz luminaries. How do you think of yourself, musically?
I never let the broad array of flavors in which music chooses to
express itself scare me away from jumping in and giving it a try. I
love any kind of music, as long as it comes from the heart and is done
out of love. Every genre has its own beauty, so to put aside any style
just because one’s experience does not include that particular musical
vocabulary is a limitation. Conducting Tchaikovsky with the Moscow
Philharmonic, improvising with Herbie Hancock and sitting for months
writing “The Pride of Baltimore,” are all unified by music itself.
you are fortunate enough to find your point of self-expression, music
allows you into the room. Where you choose to sit is not important.
What’s important is that you express, and that you express with love. I
am just very grateful that music has allowed me to sit in more than one
chair. I love playing solo, unaccompanied acoustic bass. I love playing
electric bass in a rhythm and blues band, especially if it has horns. I
loved accompanying Roberta Flack during the years we worked together
and all that I learned from hearing her voice regularly while playing
with musicians like Eric Gale, who I sat beside and had the good
fortune to hear on a nightly basis. I love playing in a jazz band,
whether it’s bebop, late sixties “Miles” style or freely improvised and
spontaneously composed. I love playing in a jazz band whether I am the
featured soloist or when I am laying down a groove under a burning
tenor or trumpet solo.
I also loved playing acoustic bass
in the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, which allowed me a
serious amount of time inside the great musical minds of classical
music. I love conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra when the
burn is on in a Tchaikovsky symphony. I love conducting the Moscow
Philharmonic when the burn is on with one of my compositions, like "The
Pride of Baltimore." I love the feeling of unity of mind you receive
when you have been composing for weeks or months on the same piece. I
love writing for a small ensemble like flute and piano. I love writing
for a large ensemble like full orchestra and chorus. I love the role of
psychological colorist you give to the visual when you write music for
It is all musical thought and action for me. Each
displays itself in a different setting with different spices than the
other, but the essence comes from the same central voice.
Your trademark as a jazz player seems to be your arco playing and
soloing. Can I assume that’s because you started as a classical player
before you discovered jazz?
My beginning on the bass at age 16 pretty much encompassed simultaneous
high school concert band, large and small jazz bands, latin bands in
the Cuban style, rhythm and blues bands on the electric bass and
playing in the local community orchestra. My reason for focusing on the
bow is that it was, for my ears, the most expressive sound I could get
out of the bass. Plus, having a Sicilian, Scot-Irish, Apache ethnic
background, I needed to express.
The beauty of bowing the
bass, or any stringed instrument, is its ability to sustain like a
voice. And probably, in the beginning, though it was not something I
was conscious of, it very possibly came from my experience as a trumpet
player or from listening to Elva Dane sing solo.
understand I am also a serious student of the pizzicato bass. Most
every day I work on improving my pizzicato playing. It’s just that my
most prominent voice on the bass is the sound that comes from bowing
the instrument. It is the sound I love making the most.
Over time, we’ve heard bass players like Paul Chambers, Eddie Gomez,
Stanley Clarke and others use the bow, but I can’t think of anyone
who’s ever applied arco playing to jazz the way that you’ve done it.
Your Blue In Green album in particular is
tremendously innovative in that you use the bow for all the melodies
and all the solos. Would you comment a little more on this unique
approach you take toward playing jazz bass?
The sound I make with the bowed acoustic bass is my voice in jazz. That
is how I have seen or heard myself since the age of 19 or 20, even
though it may not have been evident to the exterior world. So, to
record an album with the bowed voice in the lead, as well as solos
played on the bow, was no different for me than a tenor player,
trumpeter or pianist playing the heads of the tunes and then soloing
with the same instrumental color. It’s something I have been doing
since I was 19. I just waited until I felt my chops were acceptable to
my ears before presenting it to the world.
How did I
arrive there is terms of my influences? The same band director who
offered me the opportunity of playing the acoustic bass, Robert Price,
a very influential musician in my life, told me of a bass player he
heard once who bowed the heads to popular songs of the day. A light
went off and I translated this concept into bowing the heads on jazz
tunes, very possibly because I had not so long before been involved
with a melody instrument, so the approach seemed accessible to me.
This, accompanied by the fact that when I first heard Paul Chambers,
doors opened and I knew exactly what I should be doing in jazz. Paul
immediately showed you that the bass had two distinct voices, both of
which were acceptable in jazz. I loved Miles’ band of that period and
Paul being such a strong element of that unit gave me a clear picture
of which direction I would take as a bass player.
education came from falling in love with the Bill Evans Trio when Scott
LaFaro was the bassist. Scott showed you there was a whole other way of
playing time in a jazz band. He also stretched the boundaries of the
pizzicato side of the instrument to the point of giving you something
to strive for. After Scott, there was Richard Davis, who suddenly
emerged with an instrumental color and pitch flexibility like no one
else and played with an energy that once again brought the bass to the
front of the jazz band.
By that point, my study of
composition, my love of the playing of John Coltrane and the emergence
of my own voice began to take me away from my double bass influences,
although I have always appreciated the lyrical beauty in the playing of
Eddie Gomez. Once Gene Perla called Eddie, George Mraz and me to record
an album which focused on bowed bass solos. So there we were, the three
of us, standing at the mic together like three tenors, sawing away! It
has always been a great memory.
Thank you for your appreciation of my work on Blue In Green. Playing the bass in that fashion has always had a special place in my musical life, and on Blue In Green,
I was fortunate to be able to document a little of that, thanks to the
help of David Goldblatt andJoe La Barbera, who are masters of the
difficult job of accompanying an instrument which is so easy to cover.
What kind of experience did you have studying with Antal Dorati? I
remember when he was the conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
I don’t think people thought of him as “an easygoing fellow!”
Dorati, as a teacher, and as a conductor under whom I played many
times, was very encouraging and inspiring. He was all business, but you
always knew that was a result of his deep commitment to creating
high-level music. He had a great ability to hear scores without having
to go to the piano or referring to a recording of what you had written.
His connection to Bela Bartok, having been a student of Bartok’s, was
also something that fed me greatly, since Bartok was my greatest
compositional inspiration and one of my major influences as a composer.
FBPO: As a conductor who’s also a bass player, do people ever compare you to Koussevitzky?
Surprisingly enough, it is not something I have heard from anyone,
although it is a completely logical association. It is not something I
have tried to cultivate, nor have I given it any conscious thought.
Since you mention it, though, it is kind of strange that Koussevitzky
was a Russian bassist who composed and conducted in America, and I am
an American bassist who composes and conducts in Russia!
I have always appreciated Koussevitzky's bass writing, and certainly
appreciate his commissioning of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, he
is not someone who has consciously influenced me musically. Although, I
must say, on a subliminal level, as bass players who conduct, I’m sure
we’re connected. Real conducting is a tough job and is very similar to
the kind of commitment and responsibility a great jazz bass player
takes when he or she holds down the fort while everyone else stretches.
Playing the bass, whether it’s in a symphony orchestra or a jazz band,
large or small, is great training for conducting. The conductor is the
time keeper. So, when you step up to conduct for the first time as a
bass player, you are in familiar territory. The orchestra needs a
groove just as a jazz band does. And believe me, the orchestra
musicians are very well aware when it’s there, as well as when it’s not.
Talk a little about your approach to classical music versus jazz. The
styles are so dissimilar and, let’s face it, you’re dealing with two
very different “breeds” of people!
For my ears, I have never focused on the differences. Rather, I have
focused on the similar qualities and points of unity possessed by both
styles. This way of thinking has given me the freedom to move back and
forth between the two genres. It's very true that there are "two very
different breeds of people." In the beginning, I was more aware of
this. Now, it never crosses my mind. If I were playing in the orchestra
as I have done in the past, I would be more involved with the
transition between the two musical flavors. But composing and
conducting for the orchestra is much more related to improvising music
than playing in the orchestra.
4th is one of my favorite symphonies. Not only did I get to perform it
with an orchestra, but I also used to love to play it on the electric
bass, particularly the fourth movement. Do you ever go into jazz mode
while conducting an orchestra, or classical mode while playing jazz?
First let me say the 4th symphony of Tchaikovsky is also one of my
favorite symphonic pieces and one of my first symphonic influences
which took place during my high school years. The first movement is
such a great journey of progressing intensities that no matter how many
times you have experienced it, it never ceases to educate. And, the
experience of conducting the Moscow Philharmonic through the journey of
the 4th is one of the great musical experiences of my life.
I conduct, I never think classical or jazz, I only think, “Sing the
music and send my voice through my hands.” It’s the same when playing
jazz. I think, “Sing the music and send my voice through my hands.”
FBPO: Do you still play electric bass at all?
Yes I do. I began playing around the age of 16 in rhythm & blues
bands in Florida. My reason for not focusing on the electric bass is,
as I said previously, that I was completely taken by the expressiveness
of the bow on the acoustic bass. It was my first love and still is.
There is also the sound of the acoustic pizzicato which I personally
prefer because of its warmth, pitch flexibility and percussive
I have a 1959 Fender Precision, which I bought
in 1961. This bass has a modified fretless neck and, in recent years, I
have found myself playing it regularly, mostly, unamplified and late at
night, when I want to practice and it is too late to make the sounds I
make on the acoustic bass or the piano. I very much appreciate this
instrument in that it allows me to exercise the motion of my hands and
has certainly influenced my pizzicato technique on the acoustic bass.
though I do not play electric bass in public, my appreciation goes well
beyond my late-night relationship. During one of the years of working
with Roberta Flack back in 1972, Roberta hired two bass players for all
the gigs. There was acoustic bass pizzicato for the ballads, like “The
First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and electric bass for all the funk
and rhythm tunes, combined with bowed bass, processed through a wah-wah
pedal, kind of like a horn. During that period, I had the good fortune
to share the bass voice with Jerry Jemmott, in the early part of the
year, and Chuck Rainey in the latter part of the year. Obviously, it
was a real treat and a serious electric bass education to hear two such
great masters of the instrument on a regular basis. I have always been
appreciative of Roberta for having probably the only pop band in
history, which had two bass players, at least up until that time.
FBPO: Even as a young boy growing up, I remember noticing the pizzicato upright bass on “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Was that you?
TP: The recording of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is from Roberta’s First Take album and was made before I knew or played with Roberta. I played on Roberta’s Chapter Two, Killing Me Softly and Quiet Fire albums and wrote the song "Conversation Love" on the Killing Me Softly album. My favorite track I recorded with Roberta is on the Chapter Two recording and is called "Just Like A Woman."
FBPO: Your albums cut a wide swath across different styles of music, from jazz to classical to films. Blue in Green, for example, is very different from He Who Lives in Many Places, which, in turn, is different from Water Garden. It seems as though you want to capture a particular theme with each new project. Is that right?
I have always thought of a record album as a documentation of where
your musical mind is at that point in time. Each recording which I have
been fortunate enough to display, has been a journey of the period of
its documentation. For example, He Who Lives In Many Places
was a “waking up” for me. It was my debut album as a jazz artist and,
even though it is a beginning display of the voice of Terry Plumeri, it
still shows an influence of the music of Miles of the late sixties,
whom I loved greatly.
Water Garden was recorded
six years later and came at a time when my individual voice was a
little more developed. It also came during the period when I was
working with the National Symphony in Washington, DC, and when I was
beginning to come of age as a composer. As a result, I felt the need to
express myself with a string quintet in addition to the written jazz
tunes of the recording. This manifested itself in a piece for string
quintet and two guitars, “Song For Laura Rose,” featuring John
Abercrombie and Ralph Towner, as well as “Two Poems For Dance,” which
were completely written out and featured the National Symphony String
Between Water Garden and Blue In Green,
I got lost in the world of writing film scores. Otherwise there would
probably be a good bit more jazz albums under my name. That period
began in 1981 and went on until the late ’90s, when I began to get back
to the acoustic bass. Writing orchestral scores is extremely time
consuming. You can very easily work for three days or more on one
minute of music and still wish you had more time. That, combined with
the unreasonable deadlines given you as a composer has a way of
dominating your life. I have experienced film deadlines of having to
write as much as an hour of music for large orchestra in as little as 8
days. There were literally weeks upon weeks in which the bass sat in
the corner, untouched, in a small house I had over looking the Pacific.
A house in which I wrote the music to forty-three films, in seven
And then, sometime around 1997, I woke up and said,
“I’m a player. I love to play. I need to play. I’m going to play
again.” And so, I began the road back to finger dexterity and
expressiveness with my hands and voice, rather than my pencil and
voice. This renewed interest in the love of playing the bass came of
age in 2004 when the opportunity to do Blue In Green came
about. Playing heads of standards, then soloing on them with the bow,
was something I had been doing since I was 19. And never having
documented this part of myself as a musician, it seemed like the proper
time. And, since my love of the trio music of Bill Evans is a
dominating musical influence since I was 19 or 20, I chose that
Recording a jazz album exercises the composer in
you. For me, it has been natural to approach this documentation of my
musical mind as its own kind of composition, complete with its own
FBPO: You’ve already accomplished so
much in your career. What lies ahead for Terry Plumeri? What else
would you like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
I have just begun a series of four DVDs as conductor/composer of The
Moscow Philharmonic, the first of which will be released next spring.
I am very much looking forward to the preparation and filming of the
others, as well. There is also a new release of five of my chamber
pieces called Romance for Clarinet, Strings and Harp. This is the first in a series which features my chamber music. I am already working on the next of the group. The Blue In Green
album is from the fall of 2004. The intention at the time was to record
at least two more CDs with that trio, so it is certainly time to
fulfill that desire. And, last but not least, there is the two-volume
textbook on composition which I have been writing and is on the list to
complete sometime soon.
FBPO: What types of things do you like to do that aren’t necessarily musically oriented?
Truthfully, there is hardly anything I do which is not related to
music. Even my photography seems to be musically related. But, when
there is a moment and a chance to get away, I love spending time in
remote nature and sailing on open water. The two are very related in
providing a much-needed escape from the tight, rigid and chaotic
experience that civilization bombards us with daily.
conclusion, Jon, I would like to say thank you for being such a hero to
all of us bass players by creating such a great forum for the bass. I’m
sure it can do nothing but improve the standard of playing for all.
Jon Liebman - Forbassplayersonly.comhttp://www.forbassplayersonly.com/Interviews.html#PLUMERI